Rushes in Paradise

atlantis-1.jpgApologies for my reduced posting this week, but, save a couple of brief Twitter and Facebook updates on the front end of my trip, from Saturday through Tuesday I went radio silent while absorbing a visit to Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas and I'm currently attempting to cope with my besieged inbox. While the trip was for work (a press event), it also was very personal, signaling my first mom-daughter flight with Laurel and my first work trip where Laurel was encouraged to attend. The trip also provided opportunity to reflect on some of my baggage about life's luxuries (suffice to say, growing up, my immediate family of nine never flew anywhere), and also about human behavior in response to rushes of all kinds (you can take the girl out of psychology, but not the psychologist out of the girl).
The trip was hosted by JetBlue, LEGO, and the Atlantis Resort, with the focal points being to experience the family friendliness of JetBlue, learn about LEGO Atlantis (a LEGO fantasy camp is coming to the Atlantis Resort in July), and preview the newly opened Atlantis Kids Adventures club. It was an honor to be amidst a diverse and interesting group of writers (spanning bloggers, newspaper reporters, and travel writers), and it was truly wonderful to spend some time with friends such as Liz Gumbinner (Mom-101, Cool Mom Picks), Anna Fader (Mommy Poppins), Nicole Feliciano (Momtrends), C.C. Chapman (Digital Dads), Kim Foley MacKinnon (Daily Candy Kids, Boston), Carol Cain (The Adventures of a NYCity Mama), Erica Ehm (The Yummy Mummy Club), and Jill Notkin (The Daily Grind of a Work at Home Mom), and also to befriend folks such as Mara Gorman (Mother of All Trips), Candice (Mom Most Traveled), Kim Orlando (Traveling Mom), and Aliya King.

The following are observations that I hope will prove useful, both from a general parenting perspective, as well as for family trip planning -- to Altantis and elsewhere:

Consider JetBlue.

This was my first time flying JetBlue and I really dug them; as in, I’ll be checking their flight availability first for future travel. Two of the three flight legs (we flew Boston to JFK, then JFK to the Bahamas on the way down and direct from the Bahamas to Boston on the return) we traveled unidentified (i.e., not as part of the press tour) and the service was the same (excellent) in all cases. The flights were comfortable, the leg room ample (they claim to offer the most of all the airlines), the staff super friendly, and the website modern and happily easily to navigate. The e-mail flight reminders were helpful and not spammy; I especially appreciated the reminders to print my boarding passes in advance, which I recommend doing regardless of airline (if available) as a fantastic way to cut down your travel time. JetBlue also offer lots of snacks (including trans-fat free) and -- major bonus -- they check your first bag for free. I travel very light (Laurel and I only did carry on) but when you've got a stroller, diaper bag, etc. in tow, you will need to check bags and this benefit is appreciated.

Lighten your load.

As I said, I travel light and do whatever I can to save precious space. Obviously, it helps to travel to a warm weather destination where clothing isn’t bulky, but you can still do little things to lighten your load inbound (particularly if you want to leave room so you can pick up gifts and souvenirs when you travel). For example, I save space on toiletries by using the products offered in the hotel bathroom, and make use of my random skin care sample packets instead of bringing full sized tubes (some of which wouldn't meet carry on regulations anyway). I also bring almost run down tubes of product (e.g., sunscreen) so I can use and dispose of them en route and not tote them back. And my best space saver trick for this trip was not bothering to bring a beach tote, instead opting for an Envirosax bag, which folds up teeny tiny and weighs almost nothing, then expands into a functional tote that holds a ton and is easy to shake sand loose from at the end of the day.

LEGO is cool for boys, girls, and grownups.

LEGO obviously is a long standing brand, but for some reason, we have no LEGO sets in our house, save a toddler block set from way back when. This might be due to gender bias -- when I think LEGO, I tend to think of boy sets (which isn’t totally unfounded if you look at their product spread), and perhaps that is why we've instead collected Playmobil (princess, fairy, etc. sets). However, on the plane ride down and through the visit, Laurel and I both had a chance to construct with LEGOs and had enormous fun doing it. During our flight (pictured below), we worked on little color coded LEGO squares that ultimately became part of a big mural; otherwise, it was fun to see Laurel’s creative free construction (e.g., make a dolphin out of blue LEGOs), and also see her spatial orientation wheels turning as she worked on following the pictorial steps to create sets.


Atlantis: General.

This was my first time visiting the Atlantis Resort; it is large and mostly picturesque and it’s very easy to stay on the property for your entire trip (i.e., don't bother renting a car from the airport; take a shuttle). The resort offers a variety of accommodations, restaurants, entertainment, and shopping options, as well as a fitness center, spa, and of course the beach and water attractions. Though I admittedly have limited resort experience, what surprised me most was that the resort felt less peaceful cabana (my ideal vision of a resort) and more Vegas meets water park (though choice of accommodation at the resort may impact experience; see below). The vibe was definitely more American than international (I had hoped for the latter). Everywhere we went, the staff was wonderfully friendly.

Also, definitely fly direct if you can; flying JetBlue on a direct return, it was pretty excellent that the flight was just over three hours to get back to Boston.

Atlantis: Cost.

Not surprisingly for a destination vacation, generally speaking, Atlantis is not for the faint of budget. I recommend exploring special packages. In general, your booking will include your room and general amenities (e.g., access to the pools, water park, towel service, etc.) and you should budget for everything else (e.g., food, time in the kids club, special activities such as Dolphin Cay, etc.).

Atlantis: Lodging.

One of my regrets is that we did not do a property tour. We stayed in the Royal Towers (feels like a spacious but standard hotel room, save the amazing view, such as ours from the 20th floor, pictured below), which is notable for its easy access to amenities (water entertainment, beach, dolphins, kids club, etc.) but also means you are central to the casino. I know a lot of people enjoy casinos, but I have never been able to shake the cloud (both smoky and less physically tangible) of manipulation in the air. It depressed me to walk through the casino in the afternoon (walking through the casino is the most direct path to other facilities; though Laurel and I started using a more roundabout outdoor path) and see people gambling while it was gorgeous outside.

But I digress. My point is that in my wanderings, I discovered that the opposite ends of the resort were more of what I envisioned the Bahamas to be: calm, quiet, stunningly beautiful. That's where I would book in the future because for me, if I'm going to go on a tropical vacation I want something more like cabana on the beach, not Sheraton next to the casino. I would also recommend exploring rooms that have a refrigerator (and a kitchenette if possible) because food is expensive. Even if you don’t cook all of your meals, at least you could refrigerate restaurant leftovers instead of dumping them.


Atlantis: Kids Adventures Club.

The Atlantis Kids Adventures club is a drop off center for resort guests ages 3-12 (fee per hour service); it is very modern, snazzy, and digitally oriented and seeks to appeal to a wide range of ages via traditional (crafts, cooking, imaginative play, etc.) and digital entertainment. Admittedly, similar to my feelings about the casino, I had moments of wondering why you would want your kid indoors when outdoors is the Bahamas, but a kids club does make sense for when the sun is at peak, in inclement weather, and if you want to have an enclosed, secure space to drop your kids off so you can enjoy a massage or have a nice dinner.

Related to rushes, I felt as if a lot of the digital and design aspects of the club were all about the next cool rush (more lights, more colors, more action), but this may be a function of having a 5-year-old who isn't yet into video games. And I realize we were there for a grand opening, but the sugar rush factor was overwhelming. In addition to the celebratory cake and big-as-your-head chocolate bars, Laurel went on a Willy Wonka tour from which she returned with a big bag of candy (groan). Related to this, I took issue with the culinary demo. Part of the AKA club is a gorgeous, modern kitchen for cooking with kids; unfortunately it is limited to 6-12 year olds, which I strongly urge that they rethink given that kids can be very engaged in the kitchen even as young as 3 years old (as Laurel was). The demo Laurel and I started to sit in on (then abandoned) was to create a sugar coral reef (more sugar!), which made no sense to me since the kids couldn’t be very engaged (given the hot sugars and blow torches…). It would have been far more meaningful to teach the kids about local fruits and have them make and eat toothpick fruit boats or something. Not difficult, still fun and interactive, locally inspired, and way more healthy.

All of this said, there were things about the AKA club that Laurel really loved. The craft room was a huge hit, and she loved the dress up room. She also loved the interactive floor displays (e.g., stomping around to chase jellyfish or whatever) in the performance area. And in a very telling moment, when Liz and I escaped with the girls to the backyard area for some peace and quiet, Laurel and Liz’s daughter Thalia entertained themselves endlessly with a couple of inexpensive hula hoops.


A final thing that warrants mention: the AKA club is kids only. Kids must be potty trained and willing to hang out without their parents (drop off at the door). Laurel met requirement #1 but not #2. I was privy to the above observations for the press opening, but when I tried to take Laurel to the AKA club so Liz, Nicole, and I could test some of the grownup water slides, she would not go (I was prepared for this...instead we hit the water park). So, the AKA club might not serve as much of a benefit to you if you’ve got an uber attached kid like mine.

Atlantis: Water play.

As you may have gathered, Laurel and my best rushes were experienced outside. Though some areas of the resort showed wear and tear (faded signs, empty water recesses, cracks in the facade), in general the grounds were beautiful and the beach breathtaking. There are kid-friendly pools across the property, as well as water adventures (snorkeling, scuba, and snuba), water slides big and small, and river rides. By far, Laurel's favorite water park activity was The Current, a mile-long inner tube ride that alternates between calmness and craziness (extreme rapids). With a life jacket on Laurel and using a two-person inner tube, it was no problem; she would not go on some of the big kid water slides (far shorter and less crazy, but no grownups allowed), but we rode The Current four times in the span of 24 hours. It was a great ride for grownups too.

If you visit Atlantis, I highly recommend you budget for the shallow water interaction at Dolphin Cay (you currently can book this and other water adventures at a discount if you make a reservation along with a room booking). At first I thought it was just a photo op, but the experience was so much more than that. At Dolphin Cay, Laurel and I got to hug, kiss, and dance with dolphins and then learn about dolphin physiology and sensory systems. As a former scientist, I found this hugely fascinating, and felt such gratitude to be amidst these large and gentle creatures. It was an extremely moving, nature-inspired rush, particularly given that as urban dwellers, our interactions with critters are mostly begrudged ("Get out of my trash, squirrel!”).

My one regret is that on our last day I did not plan in advance enough to do a similar visit with Laurel to meet the sea lions. The dolphin interaction gave hands on learning a totally new meaning for Laurel…it was truly remarkable.

Atlantis: Food.

For the most part, we experienced buffet style restaurants, save one trip to a traditional café and a ladies outing with Liz, Anna, and Nicole to the very spectacular Nobu one night. Two things struck me about the food. First, I strongly advise thinking through your family's eating habits because the food costs can be expensive. If your family eats relatively lightly, consider cafe style (pay as you go) versus a meal plan and the buffets that invariably lead to overeating. As I mentioned earlier, I also recommend exploring rooms that offer a refrigerator or kitchen so you can save leftovers and/or do some meals (e.g., easy ones like breakfast and lunch) for less.

My second comment about the food at the resort was that I was disappointed by how American the spreads at the buffet restaurants were. Though it was convenient to have standard kid-friendly foods (e.g., pasta, chicken nuggets, etc.) available, I wanted more local fare to sample and explore and introduce to Laurel.

One additional aspect that may have been more reflective of the press trip than the resort was the unnecessary focus on the sugar rush. As mentioned above, I definitely felt that at the AKA club, and at some of the press meals, the dessert spreads were unnecessarily over the top. Laurel knows how I feel about excessive sweets and she knows the consequences (having had 3 cavities drilled last year), and I think she and I managed a decent balance. However, in another telling moment, after one meal she came up to me -- showing me her dessert plate, which had several options on it, each with only a bite or two taken -- and said, “Mom, this actually doesn’t taste as good as it looks.”

Know your kids and don’t try to force an experience.

I saw a couple of instances where parents tried to force crying children down water slides and have heard of similar behavior at other vacation spots. There's a sense that if you paid for it, damn it, your kid better get the most out of it. But in my opinion, when you're booking a family vacation, it’s important to try to strike a balance between what will be enjoyable for the grownups and what your kid can reasonably handle. Obviously, older kids will probably get more out of -- and remember more of -- a trip to Atlantis; even so, depending on the temperament of your kid, they may not be keen on something like the AKA club (as was the case for Laurel) or some of the bigger water slides. Just roll with it; anxiety ridden, tearful forced experiences do not make for happy family vacation memories.

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In summary, this was a remarkable trip in many ways, and also one that gave me pause. As you can gather from this post, logistically, there were a lot of cool things about Atlantis, and also some things I wasn’t wild about (which I acknowledge are personal preference and others might be totally fine with). Emotionally, the trip was a strange mix of feeling unbelievably grateful to have this opportunity and time with Laurel, and also nostalgic that I never had opportunities like this with my parents. And as a parent and former psychologist, it was interesting -- though ultimately not surprising to me -- to see how some rushes (desserts, digital entertainment, race cars, casino, etc.) were short lived and fleeting in memory, whereas the simple, nature inspired rushes (communing with dolphins, enjoying the water park in the gorgeous weather, playing with a 50 cent hula hoop with a friend) have proved to be the real sticking points for Laurel.

That, of course, and quality time with a mom who is unplugged for four days.